Sweet. Small. Chewy. The essence of boba milk tea. Over the years, other toppings have fought their way to be at the bottom of your favorite modern tea drink. Extra wide straws have paved the way for puddings, jellies, and several varieties of “boba”. But it all started here with the classic tapioca pearl. As the drink’s popularity spreads across the globe, the innovation of the drink and definition of boba changes. No longer tied to milk tea, boba has found its way to fruit smoothies, milk frappes, and shaved ice desserts.
What exactly are the little black starch balls called? Is it pearls, bubbles, boba, or tapioca? Pearl milk tea is the most literal & a direct translation from how you would order the drink in Taiwan; “Zhen zhu nai cha”. On the Eastern Coast of the U.S. it’s commonly known as bubble tea, with the tapioca spheres being compared to small bubbles. But others would say that the bubbles are found in the foam that results from shaking the milk tea [1,2,3]. On the West Coast, especially in Southern California, it’s definitely boba . And while boba could refer to the little chewy bits in your drink, I prefer to use it more broadly. Boba is jasmine green milk tea with salted cream. It’s a blended milk slush with a caramel drizzle and smooth chunks of egg pudding. In some late night cases it’s popcorn chicken (extra basil, please).
Picture this scene; we’re in Taiwan, 1988, at a local teahouse’s staff meeting. Iced tea is served as a refreshment to battle the humidity. The product development manager, Hsiu Hui Lin, enters the meeting with little bowls of a Taiwanese dessert, Fen Yuan, in hand [5,6]. Ms. Lin finds a seat in the back of the room, and the usual presentations on the business go on. Her mind wanders, as she thinks about the flavors of the last batch of tea she made; it just wasn’t quite right. She sips on her iced tea and then takes a spoonful of her fen yuan. Then she stops. She glances casually back and forth between her tea and the tapioca that’s in her dessert. Filled with curiosity and amusement, she adds some to her iced tea . She sips. Her eyes widen. She prepares a few more of her tapioca drink. A murmur circles the room. And like that, the idea of boba milk tea was born . The success this teahouse had from selling this drink rapidly lead to other tea shops and tea stands to follow suit, soon taking over Taiwan and eventually spreading around the world. The aforementioned teahouse is Chun Shui Tang in Taichung City, Taiwan. If you visit their store or website, they readily take credit for inventing pearl milk tea .
I like to believe in this origin story, because it inspires my idea of boba today. Whatever you may call it, boba tea is a modern invention, and constantly redefined. At Camellia, we’re trying to do boba our way. We believe the perfect tapioca pearl must be soft and easily chewed, yet have a bite and bounce to its center. And it has to be sweet enough to stand on its own, but not overwhelm the drink it’s in. But we want to take it further. We want a product that would be true to boba’s roots, our SoCal roots, and to the local San Diego community. This is our way of paying respect to the OG boba milk tea, to the countless tea shops, drinks, and fans.
1 Everything You Need to Know About Bubble Tea. [Blog post]. (2016, July 27). Retrieved from http://www.souschef.co.uk/bureau-of-taste/everything-you-need-to-know-about-bubble-tea/
2 What is Bubble Tea? (n.d.). Retrieved April 26, 2017 from http://www.bubbleology.co.uk/more/about
3 What is Bubble Tea? (n.d.). Retrieved April 26, 2017 from http://tea-zone.com/what-is-bubble-tea/
4 Google Trends. (n.d.). [Graphical illustration of interest over 2012-2017 time period and cartographic illustration of U.S. subregional interest for “bubble tea” versus “boba tea -fett”]. Retrieved April 26, 2017 from https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?cat=71&geo=US&q=boba%20tea%20-fett,bubble%20tea
5 Ang, D. (2010, September 10). Dong Qu Fen Yuan 东区粉圆 – Taiwan’s Ice Kachang. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://danielfooddiary.com/2010/09/10/fenyuan/
6 Tangyuan (food). (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved April 25, 2017 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tangyuan_(food)#cite_ref-gong_1-1
7 Chang, D. (2012, June 12). Is this the inventor of bubble tea? CNN Travel. Retrieved from http://travel.cnn.com/explorations/drink/inventor-bubble-tea-885732/
8 Some sensationalism
9 Retrieved from http://chunshuitang.com.tw/